Friday, October 25, 2013

A Good Day

Today was a good day.

In the afternoon I took my sixteen-year-old for a haircut. Mumbling, he managed nonetheless to inform the young hairdresser (a mere five years his senior, I guessed) that he wanted his hair cut short. Really short. "Almost like a crew cut," he said. She raised one eyebrow questioningly and glanced over at me. I shrugged and kept my mouth closed. "Are you sure?," she asked him. Her clippers, waiting, like her, for his response, hovered hesitantly in the air next to my son's head. He nodded assent, and his nod, if not his words, brooked no dissent.

As she worked, she switched her eyes from him to me, him to me. She was obviously worried that I was going to be horrified. I winced as clump after clump of hair, more hair than seemed possible, fell to the floor. Eventually I closed my eyes so that I wouldn't have to see.


My mother's mental illness made it near impossible for her to accept change. The depression turned her inward and made the idea of change overwhelming, out of her purview; the obsessive-compulsiveness made the idea of change vastly anxiety-provoking. The two together cemented her firmly in place. 

Our kitchen cabinets dated from the mid-1970's. They alternated between teal and cobalt. Yes, there were two tones of blue in our kitchen, and they were not complementary tones. We lived with those cabinets for thirty-five years because the idea of workers coming in to update the kitchen brought my mother close to hyperventilation. In 1981 or 1982, the clothes dryer broke. It stayed in the kitchen, broken and useless, for the next twenty-five years. As a teen I had to hang my wet laundry on wooden drying racks, not because we couldn't afford a new dryer, but because the mess it would make to remove the dryer and install a replacement was just too much for my mother to handle.

Needless to say, I, my person, was not exempt from her fear of change. When I rode the train down to Greenwich Village with my best friend and got my hair cut, from waist-length to shoulder-length, my mom cried when she saw it, and then turned chilly and remote, refusing to talk to me for a day. I was fourteen. What to say? It was a lesson, like any other.


The hairdresser called out in a bright but thin voice, "We're done!" I opened my eyes and saw my son not with something close to a crew cut, but with an honest-to-God crew cut. I inhaled sharply. Then I noticed (and was gratified by the fact) that my boy has a beautifully shaped head. And finally I watched as he grinned goofily at himself in the mirror. I exhaled.

In the car I told him to expect strong reactions from schoolmates and family. "What do you think?," he asked me, bracing himself against my answer. "It's pretty short, and you're pretty thin," I mused. "It kind of looks like you're ready to join the army. But it's not what I think. It's your hair. What do you think?"

"I love it," he breathed wonderingly.

"That's good, then," I affirmed.

And it was. Good. The shadow of my past shuffled off, defeated, as my kid stole bashful, pleased glances at himself in the rearview mirror. I hummed all the way home.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


In two weeks I will turn 46. I am in my mid-40s, and it's getting more and more difficult to remember how I got here. I have always been the sort to worry about tomorrow, or next week, and ignore the rest. This is not a particularly adult strategy, because while it gets me through the day, or week, it does nothing to address what it is that I want from the entirety of my life. Is there a legacy I'd like to leave behind? I don't know, because not only have I not thought about it, I have actively avoided thinking about it. I'm too busy craving the satisfaction of crossing out items on my to-do list, items that crop up again mere days later, items that have nothing to do with truth, or beauty, or art.

When I was a kid, teachers told me that I would be a star. They based their predictions on how easy school was for me. I took their words to heart and assumed that I would do something grand someday, certainly before the age of forty-six. A child's mental calculus doesn't even approach forty-six.

I've done nothing grand. And looking back I wonder whether those teachers were in fact fools, if well-intentioned fools. It takes more to shine than having a talent in a particular area. It takes will, and determination, and self-confidence. I have none of these.

I will not attend my 25th college reunion in the spring. I do not write snippets to be featured in my university's alumni magazine. I joke about this, as if I'm too cool to participate in so much self-congratulatory bullshit. But really, I have nothing to say. I could go on and on about my kids, and their successes, and I might even admit that I had some small thing to do with those successes. But their stories would be serving as a cover for mine, which might go something like this:

Still in same small town. Still writing, not much to show for it. Aging, expanding waistline, mother to teenagers who are now quite self-sufficient, thank you very much. Still not much of a cook. Still reading voraciously, an effective escape from day after ordinary day.

Still... waiting. For something to happen. For that thing or person to take me up and out of my stagnant life. Still haven't figured out how to be the agent of change.

Still frightened of risk, of airplane travel, of three am, of snakes, of being alone with my thoughts for too long, of saying or doing the wrong thing. Still cautious. Still half-expecting to be exposed as the fraud that I've always believed myself to be.

Forty-six years old. More than half my life gone, poof, insubstantial as smoke.

For my forty-sixth birthday I might just wish for a swift kick in my forty-six-year-old rear.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


A child in my class approaches me during lunch. "I'm being bullied," he says, matter-of-fact. "Oh, no!," I cry. "What's going on?" "Well," he replies, "you know that kid from across the hall who's on my bus?" I nod. "This morning he told me that my backpack was too small." I wait for more. Nothing.

"And then?," I press.

"That's it!," he exclaims, and goes off cheerfully to finish eating his lunch.


Now and then I ask my sons if there are any bullies in their schools. Nope, or Not really, they answer, bored, humoring me. My older son describes a boy who once grabbed his deodorant and threw it over his head while the two were dressing in the PE locker room. But he is not particularly perturbed by the incident. "It was mostly in fun," he adds, and shrugs dismissively.

I have to believe that the anti-bullying initiatives so prevalent across our school district (and others) have worked. Bullying has gone underground, online, away from teachers' prying eyes, and is problematic mainly among girls, which of course is nothing new. Girls fight with words; they always have.


If my boys think that I bother then about bullying too often, they do not ask why. If they were to wonder, I suppose that would tell them my stories. I might even start talking and never stop.

I don't know what it was about me as a child, or maybe I do. I was pretty, with long blonde hair and a turned-up nose. So it wasn't about my looks. It was likely more about my exquisite sensitivity, which like Swiss cheese came with holes dotting its landscape. Or about my good grades, which teachers tended to broadcast, without considering the consequences of doing so.

Fifth grade was the hardest year. My best friend, or once-best friend, took up with another girl, and the two of them attacked me relentlessly. One morning, my erstwhile best friend pointed at me and sang, loudly, "You darken up my life...," her take on the popular Debby Boone song. 1977, it was.

On my birthday that year, the same girl told all of our classmates not to speak to me for the entire day. Everyone complied, sheep-like. I went home that day shaking and refused to go to school for the next few days. I lay in bed, listening to the BeeGees and crying.

My mother thought that I was sick. Well, I was sick.


Seventh grade. A different girl. Her issues with me had more to do with looks, mine versus hers. She was plain. Her nose was pinched, beaky, and at the same time too large for her face. And kids were mean about that nose; they... bullied her about it. My brother would say, later, that she had the face she deserved. You'll forgive him his protectiveness, I'm sure. We were friends, went to each other's houses. But one day I received a letter in the mail. There was no return address on the envelope, and my name and address had been typed. Puzzled, I turned it over and over before opening it. Inside, one page, typed. What stood out was:


There were other words, words that made it absolutely clear who had sent the letter, because they referred to a story I had told only to this friend.

I keened. My mother rushed in, and I gave over the letter. Horrified, she called the middle school principal. Who did... nothing. She couldn't, she told my mother. The letter was anonymous. There was no way to prove who'd written it.

And that was that. A different era.


If my children do ever wonder why I quiz them rather too long and hard about bullying, I will share my history, which is bad, but not worse, and definitely not worst. I never fantasized about killing myself as a way out, so there's that.

And I will remember to be glad, for once, to have been spared the task of raising a girl all the way through to adulthood.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


We met for dinner at a restaurant. The boys and I arrived in one car, and my husband, coming from work, showed up a few minutes later in his own car. The boys had spent the ten-minute ride sniping at each other. I was not optimistic about our chances of having a peaceful Friday evening meal. But the food energized, as it will, and the dinner ended up pleasant enough. Plus, no clean-up, which always puts a smile on my face.

Outside of the restaurant we faced the first-world which-child which-car conundrum, and the boys wisely chose to separate. My husband ended up taking Eleven, and Fifteen/Sixteen (Sixteen in a week!) came with me. We two spent the ride home discussing the differences among 'neat,' 'tidy,' and 'clean,' and their opposites 'messy,' 'untidy,' and 'dirty.' One of us used the word 'dichotomy'; the other voiced strong approval of the word choice.

In the other car, unbeknownst to us, a lively discussion was underway about word connotations: Does every word have a kinder word that might be substituted? Example: instead of calling him 'skinny,' we can call him... 'trim.' Instead of calling her 'plump,' how about 'buxom,' 'svelte,' or 'curvy'?

Eleven bounded into the house on Fifteen/Sixteen's and my tails, and burbled, "Mom, what's a nicer way to refer to someone who's always angry?"

"Feisty?," I ventured. "Yes!," shouted Eleven, and pumped his arms in victory.

"Whoa," my husband marveled, as he shut the garage door. "It's as if you were in our car instead of your own!"

I love my (nerdy) family. I really do.